Sunshine - some naked truths

It was a long time coming, but Britain experienced its warmest July day on record at the start of this month. As schools shut down for the summer - and the mass exodus in search of sunshine begins - we consider the highs and lows of time spent catching rays.

Happy days

Isn't summer just a wonderful season? All those hours cooped up in offices and spent on the work treadmill can be forgotten with the arrival of that much longed-for holiday that's been waiting enticingly just around the corner for ages. These warmer months are ideal for our general wellbeing - not only do holidays offer the perfect opportunity to take time out away from the stresses of our busy working lives, but time spent with families and loved ones can prove essential for our mental health. And, the good news is that enjoying the sunshine can boost our levels of the happiness hormone, serotonin, too. Serotonin is a chemical that many scientists believe is responsible for maintaining mood balance. It can also have an impact on appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire and function too, so it is important that we get enough daylight to absorb our level of serotonin. Exercise and diet can also boost its levels so be sure to eat well this summer - and maintain your fitness while on holiday too. Easy to do when there are long sandy beaches to stroll along - especially if there is a healthy Mediterranean meal waiting at the end of it!

Activate

This summer, you can also top up on that all-essential vitamin D. This plays a key role in helping to activate infection-fighting cells and offers a boost in immune response times. So, by increasing your exposure to sunlight, you can decrease your risk for diseases associated with low levels of vitamin D. These include cancer, cardiovascular disease and poor bone health. Studies have also discovered that even gum health can benefit from a boost in vitamin D.

Dental therapist, Melonie Prebble, says: 'There are a number of studies that suggest a connection between a lack of sunlight and gum disease. So long as you apply sunscreen (to your lips as well as your body) and keep well hydrated, then you can make the most of this sunny weather.'

And when it's cloudy…

The sun isn't the only source of vitamin D. You can also increase your intake by eating:

  • Oily fish (salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel)
  • Egg yolks
  • Fortified fat spreads
  • Fortified orange juice
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Almond milk
  • Beef liver
  • Some mushrooms
  • Dietary supplements.

Cover up

But it doesn't take too much time in the sun for us to top up on the vitamin D we lack, and the downside of all this sunshine is its risk to our skin. Repeated unprotected exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays can cause eye damage, immune system suppression, andskin cancer. In excess, exposure to the sun is known to be the main cause of both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers, which continue to escalate in number in the UK.

Worryingly, a survey of 1,000-plus people carried out by the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD) earlier this year, revealed that 96% of Brits fail to check their skin the recommended once a month for skin cancer. Also, more than 77% would not recognise signs of the disease. Factors such as skin pigmentation, time of day, and how much skin is exposed all determine the healthiest dosage of sunshine for you. Those with fair skin should spend no more than 10 minutes outside without sunscreen during the hottest time of the day. After that, the risk of developing skin cancer increases. Those who tend to tan and not burn can get about 15 minutes of sunlight exposure without sunscreen, while those with darker skin may require up to six times the sun exposure of a fair-skinned person to reap the benefits of vitamin D.

Every year, more than 250,000 new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer - the most common type - are diagnosed, in addition to 13,000-plus new cases of melanoma, resulting in around 2,148 deaths annually. So, no matter what skin pigmentation you have, it is far safer to factor in the factor 30-plus than go sun cream-free. As the BAD's Johnathon Major says: 'With sunny days already making an appearance in parts of the UK, it is likely that this figure will remain high this year. This is a reflection of poor sun protection habits - people underestimate the damage that sunburn can do to their skin, and many think that skin reddening is just a harmless part of the tanning process, rather than a sure sign that you have damaged your skin irreparably.'

BAD's sun protection tips

1. Spend time in the shade during the sunniest part of the day when the sun is at its strongest, which is usually between 11am and 3pm in the summer months.

2. Avoid direct sun exposure for babies and very young children.

3. When it is not possible to stay out of the sun, keeping yourself well covered, with a hat, T-shirt, and sunglasses can give you additional protection.

4. Apply sunscreen liberally to exposed areas of skin. Re-apply every two hours and straight after swimming or towelling in order to maintain protection.

So, there's a lot to recommend spending time al fresco. Getting a daily dose of sunshine can boost your mood, improve your immune system, and kickstart the production of infection-busting vitamin D. However, the downside is that you run the risk of ageing your skin but, more seriously, causing serious (and fatal) damage to your skin so, this holiday try to find a happy balance - top up on essential vitamin D but be sure to protect yourself from harmful UV rays too!

ABC guide to checking your moles

A symmetry - the two halves of the area may differ in shape

B order - the edges of the area may be irregular or blurred, and sometimes show notches

C olour - this may be uneven. Different shades of black, brown and pink may be seen

D iameter - most melanomas are at least 6mm in diameter. Report any change in size, shape or diameter to your doctor

E volving - any change in size, shape, colour and elevation of new symptoms, such as bleeding, itching or crusting, points to danger. If in doubt, check it out! If your GP is concerned, make sure you see a consultant dermatologist, the most expert person to diagnose a skin cancer. Your GP can refer you via the NHS.